Democracy in Pakistan: Challenges and Prospects

Democracy in Pakistan: Challenges and Prospects by Quratulain Babar

Democracy in Pakistan: Challenges and Prospects | CSS & PMS Solved Essays

Quratulain Babar, a Sir Syed Kazim Ali student, has attempted the CSS essay Democracy in Pakistan: Challenges and Prospectson the given pattern, which Sir Syed Kazim Ali teaches his students. Sir Syed Kazim Ali has been Pakistan’s top English writing and CSS, PMS essay and precis coach with the highest success rate of his students. The essay is uploaded to help other competitive aspirants learn and practice essay writing techniques and patterns to qualify for the essay paper.

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Although Pakistan’s democracy is still in its early stages, facing challenges, such as public unawareness, a distorted political culture, and a widening gap between political parties and the electorate, democracy holds a crucial role in the country’s society, emphasizing the necessity of immediate free and fair elections and improved governance as essential steps to overcome the current political turmoil.

2-Understanding Democracy and its prerequisites?

3-State of Democracy in Pakistan

4-Challenges to Democracy in Pakistan

  • Distorted political culture
    • Case in point: According to Barbara Crossett, a New York Times reporter, in Pakistan, the baradari system plays a crucial role in the party’s choice of candidates
  • The widening gap between the existing political parties and electoral system and the national landscape
    • Case in point: The average voter turnout for the past nine general elections is just over 45 per cent.
  • Weak political parties
    • Case in point: Major political parties like PPP and PML (N) hold no internal elections for party offices, which are filled through nominations and appointments.
  • Bad governance 
    • Case in point: According to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Pakistan is ranked at 140th position among 180 countries.
  • Political instability 
    • Case in point: The inability of the civilian governments to complete their five-year tenure.

5-Prospects of Democracy in Pakistan

  • Wide acceptability of democracy as a form of government
    • Case in point: It was stated at a Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency’s roundtable discussion on the International Day of Democracy that 63 per cent of Pakistanis believe that a civilian government can govern the country.
  • The growth and expansion of media
    • Case in point: The study conducted by the University of Karachi on a sample of students shows that political awareness among the youth is due to mass media.
  • The emergence of an assertive judiciary
    • Case in point: Many Chief Justices have considered missing persons, and a particular cell has been made to deal with the cases.
  • The rise of urban-middle class
    • Case in point: The lawyers’ movement of 2007-08
  • The appearance of an informed civil society
    • Case in point: The punishment of paramilitary personnel who recklessly shot a criminal suspect in Karachi, which followed an expose of the brutal shooting by a television channel.

6-How to Counter the Challenges to Democracy?

  • ✓By restructuring the political parties
  • ✓By promoting a culture of cooperation among political parties
  • ✓By holding free and fair elections 


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Democracy, in its present form, has taken a long time to emerge, bolstered by many developments – from 1215, the English Magna Carta, to the French and the American Revolutions in the eighteenth century, to the adult franchise spread in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in North America and Europe. But since the latter half of the twentieth century, democracy has been established as a form of government to which every nation is entitled – whether in Europe, America, Asia, or Africa. The flowering and reach of democratic practice are, however, a continuing process. Likewise, democracy in Pakistan, still in its juvenile stage, is undergoing the same evolution as it is yet to solve many problems that threaten its democracy. For instance, unawareness among the masses about the nature of democracy, distorted political culture, deteriorating political crisis, and, among others, the widening political gap between the political parties and the electorate are significant hurdles in democracy. Despite these challenges, it is irrefutable that democracy has attained a special place in Pakistan, and if it continues to flourish, its prospects can be multiple. To illustrate, the wide acceptance of democracy, the emergence of an assertive judiciary, and a more vibrant civil society are the rays of light in the darkness, indicating that there is no viable political solution other than democracy for Pakistan’s political turmoil. Thus, the political elite should pull Pakistan out of this dilemma by holding immediate free and fair elections and improving governance to fill the void between the government and the masses.

Democracy is a system of government in which laws, policies, leadership, and significant initiatives of a state or other political entity are determined directly or indirectly by the “People’. Historically, this group was often a minority, such as all male adults in ancient Athens or all sufficiently propertied male adults in 19th-century Britain. However, the concept has evolved to encompass all or nearly all adult citizens in the modern era. Like any other form of government, democracy has its fundamentals, without which it cannot flourish in any state. For instance, free and fair elections are the prerequisites of democracy. Moreover, free media, newspapers, and television cannot be ignored in the contemporary era because they are essential to creating political awareness among the general public. Another vital precondition of democracy is education, which generates a well-informed electorate. In addition, freedom of speech and expression, particularly on societal and political issues, is the critical essence of democracy. All these elements and a fair and impartial judiciary form the main pillars of democracy.

Currently, Pakistan is experiencing a complete breakdown of democracy with a powerless interim setup at the centre provinces serving beyond their constitutional mandate, a divided judiciary that is being openly defied, and an increasingly censored media. Moreover, the post-2018 period has seen democratic reversals and regression as the hybrid arrangement entailed the military establishment, giving it an expansive role in politics, governance, and even the economy. According to the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, the phase that ended with the Parliament’s dissolution in August this year is the period of democratic decline rather than democratic consolidation. Further, this has been accompanied by primarily politically motivated corruption cases against opposition leaders, the jailing of political leaders and activists, the defiance of the rule of law, and the marginalization of the Parliament.

There are many culprits behind the sorry state of democracy in the country. First, one of the significant challenges to informed choices is Pakistan’s flawed political culture. Political culture refers to peoples’ attitudes toward the political system and its various parts and attitudes towards the self in the system. In the case of Pakistan, the political structure is greatly influenced by caste and the radar system. In this system, people are divided into social hierarchical communities, and each community has its place in the social hierarchy, remaining constant generation after generation. Moreover, individual opinions have no value; these are bound by the decisions of the biradari, who make decisions on every political and social aspect. According to Barbar Crossette, a New York Times reporter, the biradari system in Pakistan plays a vital role in the party’s choice of candidates. Further, the backward rural areas of the country have feudalism-like political structures regulated by feudal lords. As a result, the leading political parties maximize their vote by harnessing landlords and factory owners. Thus, in such a political culture, informed choices become a dream for individuals whose opinions do not stand a chance before the biradari or landlord.

Another factor that poses a challenge to democratic stability is what might be called the political gap between the existing political parties and the electoral system, and several factors have transformed the national landscape. To illustrate, recent years have seen a wave of urbanization – a shift in the centre of economic power from rural areas to cities, the expansion of modern communication technologies, and greater public awareness brought about by broadcast and social media. However, representative or electoral politics have lagged and failed to reflect these changes. This has created a growing disconnect between traditional politics and new social dynamics. A telling symptom of the gap between electoral politics and changing public aspirations is the falling voter turnout. For instance, the average voter turnout for the past nine general elections is just a little over 45 per cent, which means that more than half of the voters do not even participate in electing their new governments at the federal and provincial levels. Thus, the archaic nature of Pakistani politics puts it at odds with the changing society and its needs, making it difficult for democracy to evolve. 

Moreover, the weak institution of political parties also hampers the development of democracy. For example, major political parties like PPP and PML(N) hold no internal elections for party offices, which are filled through nominations and appointments. As a result, party officials are not representatives of the workers who feel frustrated about this imposition from the top. These party officials tend to come from the ruling classes and care little about the workers and the need to remain in touch with the problems of ordinary citizens. They turn into sycophants for the leader at the top and end up insulating and isolating him from political realities, thus creating a void between the party and its voters and allowing non-political actors to come into play.

Further, bad governance is another major hurdle in democracy, as the country is performing poorly at all governance indicators: transparency, accountability, service delivery, and the rule of law. It is manifested in governance based on clientelist politics geared to rewarding networks of supporters rather than the needs of citizens. This encourages rent-seeking behaviour and corruption. According to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Pakistan is ranked at 140th position among 180 countries. Regarding other governance indicators, the government cannot provide public goods to its citizens and uphold the rule of law. For example, according to a report released by the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), the government cannot provide even safe drinking water to its citizens, let alone other necessities of the masses. Thus, the inability of the government to govern and cater to the needs of the masses does not allow democracy to flourish in the country.

Further, political instability is one of the significant challenges to democracy. This is manifested in the inability of civilian governments to complete their tenure. It happens due to the lack of cooperation and tolerance between the ruling party and the opposition. This results in the apolitical forces to come into play, leading to political instability. Thus, the clashes and conflicts between the political parties are the major impediments to the development of actual democratic norms.

Nonetheless, no matter how significant these challenges are, they cannot obstruct the dawn of democracy in the country. As is evident from changing socio-political dynamics, only the future of democracy in Pakistan is feasible. In this regard, significant trends favouring the consolidation of democracy are discussed below.

First, political actors – political parties and other stakeholders and participants in the democratic process – now have a shared stake in the continuance of democracy. However, this was not always so in the past when one or another political party looked to the army to resolve their political disputes. But now, there is wide acceptance and public consensus that military intervention is not the answer or the option. In this consideration, it was stated at a Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency’s roundtable discussion on the International Day of Democracy that 63 per cent of Pakistanis believe that a civilian government can govern the country. The military even supports this consensus, which is moving toward accepting the principle of civilian democracy. This has added to the delegitimization of military rule in the country. Thus, the broad consensus on the democratic form of government indicates the prospects for democracy in the country.

Moreover, the growth and expansion of media – broadcast and social, has made it a powerful political force, paving the way for democracy. It is exercising this power to hold rulers to account, expose corruption and injustice, and become a platform for sustained demands for accountable governance. Undoubtedly, the media in Pakistan has become more open, direct, and proactive, highlighting societal wrongdoings. As a result, it has become an effective tool that creates political awareness among the masses, enabling them to participate in the political process effectively. For instance, the study conducted by the University of Karachi on a sample of students shows that political awareness among the youth is due to mass media. Consequently, political awareness has led the youth to have political discussions and political participation in different forums. Thus, the rise of media as a robust political force indicates the bright future of democracy in the country. 

Like the media, another emerging force is the assertive judiciary that is contributing to the consolidation of democracy. To illustrate, it is seeking to operationalize democratic checks and balances, limit the excess of executive power and focus government attention on pressing issues, for example, the breakdown of law and order in Karachi, increasing corruption, and the cases of missing persons. Among many cases going on at present in the Supreme Court is an investigation of missing persons allegedly picked by the country’s security forces. In this regard, many Chief Justices have considered missing persons, and a particular cell has been made to deal with the cases. In this way, the judiciary tries to ensure that ill practices are subject to the law and that Pakistan’s democracy is anchored in the rule of law and does not degenerate into elected autocracy or kleptocracy.

In addition, the rise of a large, more assertive urban middle class also has an essential bearing on democratic consolidation. It has unleashed new political dynamics as it wants a more prominent political voice, expressing itself first in the lawyers’ movement of 2007-08. This saw months of street action by lawyers and members of civil society in support of judges ousted by President Pervaiz Musharaf and in defense of the rule of law. Two waves of protests led to the restoration of the Chief Justice and his colleagues. Although the campaign had a single-point agenda, it reflected broader liberal-democratic aspirations and was spearheaded by middle-class professionals, with politicians following, not leading. Thus, the urban middle class wanting to play a role in the country’s politics affords opportunities to align Pakistan’s governance with the forces of demographic change and the modernizing impulses of a social class whose universe is quite different from the stagnant, patrimonial world of traditional politics. 

Similarly, the well-informed civil society is another countervailing force, increasing the odds of democracy in the country. In this regard, unjust practices at national and international levels are now challenged more frequently and confidently. Examples abound of citizens taking their cases to the media, the media mounting pressure, and the judiciary taking action in a mutually reinforcing manner. This is exemplified by the punishment of paramilitary personnel who recklessly shot a criminal suspect in Karachi, which followed an expose of the brutal shooting by a television channel. This and other cases illustrate a new form of citizen-driven accountability.

So, to ensure the country’s democratic evolution, specific measures are suggested to avert the challenges to democracy. For example, the restructuring of political parties is of utmost significance. This institution needs to be strong by involving all members in decision-making. In addition, all the parties must carry out regular elections within their respective parties so new leaders can emerge. Local governments are the ideal nurturing grounds for political leadership as the people serving in the union councils are aware of the ground realities and needs of the people and, thus, are more deserving of coming up in the political hierarchy of their concerned political parties. This would ultimately lead to a strong leadership with a well-defined political ideology, leading the country on a democratic path.

Furthermore, there is a dire need for a cooperation-based system where all political stakeholders collaborate for the greater national good regardless of their diverse ideologies. This can be done by enacting a charter of democracy, as in the past, so that an environment of tolerance can prevail. This is necessary for the smooth functioning of the government as it would prevent the exploitative elements from taking advantage of the differences between the ruling elite and the opposition.

No less importantly, in the contemporary scenario, the most widely advocated solution to the challenges to democracy is the prompt conduct of free and fair elections. As a result of the ousting of the previous government, most citizens feel betrayed as they do not believe in the legitimacy of the current interim setup. Thus, fair general elections would lead to political stability, ultimately opening up the avenues for democratic stability of the country.  

In summary, democracy in Pakistan has specific challenges like weak political parties, bad governance, the gap between the masses and the government, and political instability. Still, the future of democracy in Pakistan is feasible due to the emergence of new acts changing the country’s political dynamics. For instance, the government is witnessing an interplay between a recently empowered judiciary, vigorous media, and citizen activism. These are excellent signs to argue that democracy has a future in Pakistan. Thus, to overcome the impediments of democracy, there is a need to restructure the political parties, hold free and fair elections, and improve governance.

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